“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”
Those are the words which open Straight Outta Compton, and witness you will.
Compton tells the story of seminal rap outfit N.W.A. from their formative years on the streets through to their meteoric rise to fame, dissolution, and partial reconciliation.
Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Dj Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) are five young men growing up in one of the toughest towns in Los Angeles county, who each dream of much more for themselves.
Through a shared love of music, they team up to start making their own ‘reality rap’. Their particular brand of raw, honest, and furious rap strikes a chord with a young listening audience who are disillusioned with authority in a part of America plagued with gang violence and police brutality.
Seeing their potential, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) volunteers himself to manage N.W.A. to guide them to the bigtime.
As their star begins to rise, personality clashes combined with Jerry’s possibly shady contractual dealings threatens to fracture the group, and undo everything they've built together.
It’s a familiar (albeit true) story. Characters yearn for success, but are left with a bitter taste in their mouth once they achieve it (see also: The Social Network, Jobs, Scarface, Citizen Kane – and yes – Wayne’s World), and it’s a formula which is very neat and satisfying to observe.
What keeps this film from feeling stale though, are the almost uniformly excellent performances therein.
Jason Mitchell as the cocky-yet-flawed Eazy-E maps out a beautiful trajectory for his character’s story arc, and watching Eazy grow from the hard-learned life lessons thrown his way is an enthralling experience.
Newcomer O’Shea Jackson Jr. in the role Ice Cube, his real life father, is at the same time completely at ease on screen and pulsing with the ambitious energy of a young man trying to make his way in the world. Jackson is such a natural, it will be a joy to see more of him in the future.
For me, the only casting misstep in the entire film was Paul Giamatti, who was recently seen playing a controlling band manager in 2014’s Love & Mercy, who now in Straight Outta Compton plays the controlling band manager. Giamatti is a gifted actor (see: HBO’s John Adams) but his Jerry Heller was slightly more cartoonish in his portrayal compared against the very grounded performance of the company of actors around him.
The leads are bolstered by appearances from several other real life rappers from the time, such as Snoop Doggie Dog, Tupac Shakur, and noted Texan Ruthless Records collaborator D.O.C.
, who was himself a pioneer of gangster rap.
Straight Outta Compton, though technically a period film, broaches the ever-relevant issue of police brutality and discrimination towards the African American community in the United States. The members of N.W.A. in the film are routinely harassed by the LAPD, and they are shown to be following the horrific beating by multiple police officers of Rodney King in 1992. The outrage over the acquittal of the officers involved in the beating triggered the Los Angeles Riots of that same year, riots which bore similarities to the Ferguson Riots after the death of Michael Brown in 2014.
Director F. Gary Gray started out making music videos for the likes of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, so it only makes sense that he was entrusted to bring their stories to life on the big screen. He along with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique create beautiful pictures within the everyday adversity of these men’s lives.
Gray demonstrates a clear command of directing performances, and in turn doesn’t shy away from the close up. It’s the mark of a director who trusts his actors, and that’s a big part of why this movie works.
This is an endlessly fascinating, funny, and poignant film which is driven by a brilliant ensemble cast. Oh, and the soundtrack? You better believe it's worth a listen.
- Luke Erickson
The D.O.C is coming to JMC Academy!
Ghost writer for Dr Dre and an integral member of N.W.A, the D.O.C is coming to perform his first speaking tour around Australia! Find out how to get tickets here...